Solving the jobs and climate crises together

Penny Howard looks at the proposals to create hundreds of thousands of jobs through government stimulus that addresses climate change, and how we can win them

In the coming months significant government spending will be necessary to support an economy entering one of its worst-ever crises. There is a pressing need to create hundreds of thousands of jobs to deal with the growing unemployment.

This situation is also a major opportunity for government stimulus that addresses the climate crisis. Calls for this have been taken up by sources as diverse as the Australian Industry Group and the ACTU, renewable energy companies, and Friends of the Earth.

But the government has largely ignored them. Instead it wants to further increase public money to support new gas and coal extraction and infrastructure.

Gas-fueled recovery?

In April, Energy Minister Angus Taylor declared that plunging global gas prices were an opportunity for a “gas-fired recovery”. Climate NGO 350.org have documented a lengthy list of demands put forward by the fossil fuel industry, many of which have already received government support. The government-commissioned review of its Emissions Reduction Fund, the new Low-emissions Technology Investment Roadmap, as well as the Underwriting New Generation Fund all are clearly  structured to allow funding of new gas and coal developments (although the Roadmap does not include coal-fired power).

Scott Morrison’s hand-picked COVID-19 Commission, tasked with helping promote the economic recovery, also appears to be pushing for government subsidies for new gas projects. A leaked report of the COVID-19 Commission’s Manufacturing Task Force calls for subsidies to encourage the development of new gas fields (mainly through fracking) and the construction of new gas pipelines. Gas “completely dominated” taskforce discussions, according to Paul Bastian, National Secretary of the AMWU and member of the Task Force, with, “not enough discussion about [other] opportunities that are presented and the need to focus on renewables.” COVID-19 Commission Chair Nev Power has since distanced himself from the leaked report.

The potential for renewable energy to boost manufacturing has recently been outlined by the Centre for Future Work, the Grattan Institute (focusing on steel) and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (on aluminium).

While some manufacturing uses gas as a feedstock in ways that can’t be immediately replaced with renewable energy, the current use of 166 petajoules of gas in homes could be released through a program of substituting household appliances (as proposed by BZE and Climateworks). This is much more than the 110 pJ of increased manufacturing demand the COVID-19 Commission Task Force claims justifies new gas wells and pipelines.

The government also claims more gas power will be needed to ensure reliability as the use of renewable energy increases. But the Integrated System Plan for the electricity grid by the government’s own Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts that the proportion of gas and coal in the grid will decline over time as renewable energy increases. A recent AEMO study outlined the key actions needed to allow higher levels of renewables in the grid—75 per cent by 2025, and then even higher. None of the recommendations included building gas power generation.

While gas has been touted as a “transition fuel” with lower emissions, the methane that is extracted in Australia is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide if it is released to atmosphere without being combusted. This can happen through “fugitive emissions” during the extraction and transport process, and these are hardly measured and significantly undercounted. The liquefaction and transport of gas as LNG in ships also significantly increases the energy and emissions from gas. The need to sharply reduce emissions means we need to invest in zero-emissions solutions—not spend billions on infrastructure that will lock in decades of emissions.

Towards a zero emissions future

Horrified by these developments, environmental organisations are rightly starting to flesh out what an investment program to reduce emissions and create jobs could look like. New modelling released in March by ClimateWorks shows that Australia could reach zero net emissions by 2035, and stay within the carbon budget needed to keep global heating to 1.5°C.

The report is clear that achieving zero net emissions even by 2050 requires “direct government intervention” (p.12) and “faster change than under typical market conditions” (p.14).

The need for electricity decarbonisation is well known, and the ClimateWorks report describes this as critical to decarbonising other sectors. In order to meet the 1.5°C pathway, renewable energy should be at 79 per cent of electricity by 2030 (29 GW of generation and 56GWh of storage). The Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) Million Jobs Plan argues that we should build 90 GW of renewable energy supported by 20GW of batteries in the next five years, and estimates this could provide up to 50,000 jobs per year (including in construction, manufacturing, transmission and batteries).

ClimateWorks break down emissions by the industry electricity is used in, and by the current availability of zero-emissions solutions. Looked at this way, buildings are the next big area for climate action, consuming 21 per cent of energy by end-use.

Buildings and electricity both “have access to mature zero-emissions technologies” (p.13) and should be able to achieve zero or near zero emissions by 2035. Zero-emissions buildings should be insulated, draft sealed, with the most efficient lighting, heating and cooling, and with gas appliances switched over to electric.

But considering the extraordinary cost of housing in Australia, the growing number of renters, lack of public housing, and the deregulation of basic building standards, it is very difficult to imagine how the market could do this.

BZE’s plan for buildings includes 30,000 new zero-emissions social homes per year (87,000 jobs per year) and “deep energy retrofits” of 500,000 homes per year (another 100,000 jobs per year). BZE proposes that government could underwrite the provision of “managed energy agreements” to households. This would pay the upfront costs of energy efficiency renovations and ongoing maintenance (although they envisage it being delivered by a for-profit company). Residents would pay a set fee per month, which would be less than their current energy bills.

ClimateWorks say transport emissions could be significantly improved simply by improving fuel standards—Australian vehicles have 45 per cent more emissions than European ones, with no greenhouse gas emissions standards. Vehicles can be electrified and new forms of fuel developed—but the report has a surprising emphasis on autonomous vehicles and a lack of emphasis on public transport and on increasing the use of ships and trains for freight. This is a political disaster for working class support.

The ClimateWorks modelling also relies on tree planting or “carbon forestry” offset schemes in order to achieve zero net emissions by 2035. This simply delays the spending needed to reduce emissions, and even they acknowledge it could only be a temporary measure.

Politics of a climate recovery

ClimateWorks argues that reducing emissions requires “all-in” commitment from business, government, individuals and technological progress. But under capitalism, businesses only invest in new technologies if they will increase profits. They have billions invested in existing technologies that are still profitable, and the expense of installing new technologies and processes could see them lose market share through increased costs and reduced competitiveness.

Despite these obstacles, both the BZE and ClimateWorks plans are locked within a business and market framework and do not recognise the extent to which we need significant public investment and ownership to deliver the plans we need in the required time frame. BZE are explicit about wanting to get support from business and “capital” but don’t mention unions or workers—only “community” support.

It is essential to heed to lessons of the 2019 election. In order to win, the climate movement needs the working class onside. In the context of much higher unemployment, this means emphasising the number of potential jobs on offer. But climate recovery plans must also be clear about the need for quality jobs to be created, for public investment and to ensure that essential services like electricity will be delivered cheaply. The politics of carbon forestry and autonomous vehicles featured in some plans is problematic. BZE’s decision to create an advisory board for its One Million Jobs plan that includes Malcolm Turnbull and the Secretary of the NSW Liberals’ Energy Environment Policy Branch (also the owner of a number of organic food stores) will make it harder to win working class support. They are only now in the process of adding a few union representatives.

The current poor wages and working conditions in a great deal of the renewable energy industry, the fact that fossil fuels remain a significant employer and jobs are generally well-paid and unionised, and the history of programs such as Tony Abbott’s Green Army (paid half the minimum wage) means that any credible jobs plan must address the quality of jobs it seeks to create. Both BZE and ACF have released very jobs-focused plans, but don’t address the quality of jobs.

It is a positive step that the 350.org Peoples’ Recovery platform includes a call for “secure and unionised jobs” (while adopting the technical aspects of the BZE plan). Friends of the Earth talk about prioritising interests of workers and the community not corporations in their plan. Workers for Climate Action outline the rationale for public investment in renewable energy in the current crisis, and the United Workers’ Union puts investment in renewable energy in the context of a job and income guarantee and more democratised forms of public ownership.

The Greens have also called for investment and job creation, including a government “job guarantee” employment scheme for people under 30, “paid at industry-standard wages and with full entitlements”, and public ownership of new transmission infrastructure and a government-owned energy retailer.

In vaguer terms, ALP leader Anthony Albanese has also recognised the need to tackle climate change as part of a stimulus, including through social housing, and the possibilities this creates for creating jobs, reducing energy prices, and revitalising manufacturing.

The Australian Government has recently poured hundreds of billions of recovery money largely into the hands of companies through JobKeeper wage subsidies and business loans, with few strings attached. Although this money is supposed to support workers, companies remain in full control of what work is being carried out and there is no examination of whether this is actually in the public interest.

We simply cannot allow decisions about transforming the economy to deal with climate change to remain in the boardrooms of individual competing companies each siphoning off a share of the profit at the expense of workers’ wages and conditions, and jockeying for their own individual advantage.

If billions more are to be invested, this must be done in the public interest, with full public accountability and oversight, and require the creation of good union jobs. This is important both to our recovery efforts, but also for ensuring that we actually achieve zero emissions.

The privatisation, corporatisation and marketisation of Australia’s current electricity system must be reversed. The development of renewable energy in Australia was already in trouble with the end of the subsidies through the Renewable Energy Target and a total lack of planning for new renewable projects resulting in significant problems in being able to connect to the grid.

Now the economic crisis means that 15 new renewable energy projects have been cancelled or postponed. Little wonder, then, that the peak bodies for renewable energy companies have held urgent summits and released reports calling for government investment in renewable energy.

Winning climate action

Faced with the enormous power of fossil fuel interests in our economy, and the degree of economic transformation required, the power to force change will not come from sections of business.

It will require a mass climate movement that reaches into the workplaces and involves workers on a mass scale.

To do so requires winning over the majority of the working class to the need for climate action, alongside much wider social change. The climate movement needs to have a clear focus on good union jobs, on providing affordable basic services under democratic control, and on improving people’s lives. Only with this kind of politics can the student strikes develop to involve mass mobilisations and strikes by workers, and the power to win the change we need.

Discussions are underway about a major climate mobilisation in mid-September, backed by School Strike for Climate, that will call on government to invest in climate action and jobs, and not to subsidise fossil fuel developments. This is a chance to deepen working class support for climate action, and take the next step in developing the climate movement we need.

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